The Korea of 1961 was one of societal flux, mired in post-war poverty but striving towards a brighter economic future. The rising tides of affluence had given birth to a new middle-class with the old feudal attitudes while others were largely left behind on the shores of prosperity. Kang Dae-jin’s A Coachman (馬夫 /마부, Mabu), the first Korean film to win a major international award with the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival, finds itself at just this juncture as an old man pulling a horse and cart is forced to face up the automobile age while worrying what is to become of his family in the perilous modern society.
Ageing patriarch Chun-sam (Kim Seung-ho) has been guiding a horse and cart since his father died in Manchuria when he was 14. Technically speaking, he is not the owner of his horse, Dragon, but operates it on behalf of the owner, the mistress of an upper middle-class salaryman. As business is slow, she is always threatening to sell the horses which would leave Chun-sam and the other coachmen without a means to support themselves. Meanwhile, Chun-sam’s four children whom he raised alone after his wife passed away at a young age are each looking for different ways out of their impoverished existence. Chun-sam married off his eldest daughter Ok-nyeo (Jo Mi-ryeong) who is deaf and mute to a man he saved during the Korean War but he is abusive and treats her like a servant while openly inviting his mistress into their home. Oldest son Su-eop (Shin Young-kyun) is currently studying to retake the bar exam for the third time, middle daughter Ok-hee (Um Aing-ran) has begun dating a shady salaryman, and youngest boy Soo-up has become a high school delinquent.
Kang opens with an exciting sequence following Soo-up who has attempted to steal a bicycle as he tries to escape from its owner chasing him. Returning home covered in mud, slowing to a walk and putting his student’s cap back on to avoid suspicion, he makes his way from the modern houses of the new city back through traditional Korean homes towards his rather makeshift family abode which they share with the horse stabled in a side room. Chun-sam is obviously not a wealthy man, but the family bear their struggles with fortitude, perhaps to some extent avoiding each other but rarely arguing directly. Even the news that Ok-hee has once again quit her latest job, working in a cafe, in record time is greeted with exasperated acceptance rather than anger or resentment.
Ok-hee quit the cafe to fall in with her ultramodern friend Mi-ja (Choi Ji Hee) who has arranged a double date with a pair of sleazy executives, telling them that Ok-hee is a university graduate and daughter of a wealthy CEO. Intensely ashamed of her working class background as a mere coachman’s daughter, Ok-hee tries to catapult herself into the middle classes by weaponising her sex appeal, too proud to take the long way round through honest work. She rejects the attentions of family friend Chung-soo (Hwang Hae) who is good and kind because he is only a driver, taking little notice of his earnest warning that nothing good ever comes of hanging around with shady types like her boyfriend. He keeps trying to persuade her to take a job in a nearby factory, but she still thinks she’s above that kind of life and is convinced she can get the executive to marry her.
Chang-soo’s interest is of course romantic, but the advice he gives her is honest and altruistic. Unlike his unsavoury money lender father, Chang-soo is a salt of the earth type, but good men are hard to find and trying to escape poverty through marriage is a road fraught with danger as Ok-nyeo discovers. Chun-sam thought he’d done the right thing in marrying her off, believing a match would be hard to come by because of her disability and worrying she’d be left alone with no-one to look after her, but she is forced to endure mistreatment and humiliation at the hands of her husband. Ok-nyeo repeatedly returns to her family home, only able to show them the bruises to explain what’s happening, but Chun-sam always sends her back unable to break with the old patriarchal rules which insist that once married she must forever remain this man’s wife.
Chun-sam faces a similar dilemma of his own when he strikes up a tentative relationship with the kindly maid at his boss’ mansion who often heats up rice wine for him and goes out of her way to give him little treats. The odious moneylender is also after Suwon (Hwang Jung-seun) who is considered “old” to be unmarried at 37, but she favours Chun-sam because, as she says, she has always known him to be a “good man”. The “courtship”, if you could call it that, is innocent in the extreme with Suwon largely taking the lead while Chun-sam lags bashfully behind, childishly excited but also embarrassed because he cannot afford a wife and would be ashamed to ask her to share his life of poverty.
Looked down on by everyone, Chun-sam is forced to go cap in hand to his employer where he is made to “know his place” and reminded he is “just a coachman” with no right to talk back. When Hwang, the boss’ lover, injures Chun-sam through reckless driving, Su-eop becomes fed up with persistent feudalism and intends to have a polite word but is quickly shut down, reminded that he is nothing more than coachman’s son and told that his dreams of becoming a lawyer are not only unrealistic but an offence to the social order.
Su-eop alone takes the conventional route out of poverty in pursuing education and a steady government job, but is repeatedly told that he’s getting above himself and should be content with becoming a coachman like his dad, despite the fact that being a coachman is already close to an obsolete profession given the increasing affordability of the motorcar. He alternates between guilt and despair, wondering if he’s being irresponsible in pinning all his hopes on the bar exam and worrying that he’s not doing enough to support the family.
Yet Chun-sam, forced to consider his own obsolescence, is keen for him to succeed, not only because the family needs him to make a success of himself but because he wants his son to have a better kind of life than he had taking full advantage of the possibilities of the new society. Though their lives are hard, Chun-sam and his family remain kind and honest (even Ok-hee and Suo-up eventually conclude that hard work is the way after all), bonding with others of the same mindset like the maid Suwon who eventually quits her job in protest, and Chang-soo who rejects his father’s underhanded venality for simple human decency. United by friendly solidarity, the family is repaired and resolves to live on as a tiny unit of cheerful resistance against the feudalistic greed and selfishness of the modern society.